Peter Pringle's America: Hey Jude, don't make it worse

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THE priest's voice at the other end of the phone was unmistakably Irish and refreshingly open and frank for a member of the clergy. 'Oh Jesus, the father that takes care of devotions to St Jude is on vacation,' said the voice. 'It's true the devotions are crowded, and for some unknown reason there's a great interest in St Jude. It's a recent thing among Catholics here.' I was calling St Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church on West 31st Street to inquire about St Jude's rise in popularity. Thousands of New Yorkers attend the saint's devotions each Wednesday, much to the surprise, and gratification, of the Franciscan fathers and also of the Dominicans uptown who are having similar experiences.

As the patron saint of impossible causes, St Jude first became popular in America in the Depression years. Today, people are turning to him again for help in solving the dismal certainties of everyday life - job loss, drugs, crime, Aids. Such problems have contributed to what President Clinton identified last week as the 'great crisis of the spirit that is gripping America'. Even the better-off are seeking saintly succour for the seemingly intractable problems associated with the pursuit of happiness in the Nineties. One devotee of St Jude reportedly came to find help selling a house in a slow market.

The modern American gauge of a saint's popularity is how many electronic candles are lit on his or her behalf by those placing 25 cents in the slot. When I visited the Franciscan church, St Jude was doing better on this scale than St Anthony and almost as well as the Virgin Mary.

In the relative calm inside St Francis's, the recurring problems besetting the American Roman Catholic Church itself could be forgotten, but only for a moment. The newspapers are full of trouble: 'Priest arrested in dollars 7m car hold-up' was a story about an apparent attempt involving a Catholic priest to rob an armoured car service on behalf of the IRA. Bad enough. But what about: 'Cardinal accused of sex abuse', about Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago being a defendant in a law suit alleging that he abused a schoolboy almost two decades ago.

The cardinal, 65, has emphatically and repeatedly denied the charge against him; his many supporters and admirers say he is a victim of an attempt to extract money from the church. The plaintiff, a 34-year-old man with Aids, is asking for dollars 10m. Cardinal Bernardin could be a victim of his own high profile on the issue of the clergy and sexual abuse. In 1991 he set up a commission to look into hundreds of allegations and started a hot-line for complaints. The commission reported 34 confirmed cases and removed the priests, but the church successfully blocked government attempts to obtain the commission's records.

The only way for the bishops to rid themselves of the turmoil within is to be open and frank. They have an opportunity this week in Washington when they meet for their annual get-together to discuss the state of the world and the church and the relationship between the two. The temptation will be to deflect the focus on sexual abuse with high-sounding pastoral pronouncements on the relative merits of economic sanctions and United Nations peacekeeping in American foreign policy.

They plan to call for a more active American role on the world stage, including a reinforced effort to end the spread of nuclear arsenals among the new nuclear nations such as India, Israel and South Africa, and the near-nuclear countries such as Pakistan. The bishops would like to expand foreign aid and, where necessary, use military force (by which they mean US military force) to intervene where innocent people are threatened by nationalistic rivalries.

A draft of the document to be voted on by the bishops begins: 'After the cold war there has emerged an understandable but dangerous temptation to turn inward, to focus only on domestic needs and to ignore global responsibilities. This is not an option for believers in a universal church or for citizens in the world's most powerful nation.' The draft expresses distress at 'every child murdered' in these nationalistic conflicts and urges the strengthening of institutions with stabilising power in an unstable world, such as the UN.

The debate on world disorder can always use sane voices, but there are more pressing matters for the bishops than advice to the international community on what to do in Bosnia, Somalia, Cambodia, Cyprus, Georgia, the Gaza Strip or Moldavia - the list goes on. What is required, and in short order, is a full accounting of the Roman Catholic clergy's sexual abuse of minors, or of adults for that matter.

What about every child murdered in America? In parlous times such as the Great Depression, the Catholic church as an institution has also provided stability in America's multi-ethnic communities, but many American Catholics are now accusing the church of abandoning that moral and educational mission, closing churches in inner cities because the flock has moved to the suburbs, and losing its integrity because it refuses to confess fully its own wrongdoings.